It’s hard to pick up a newspaper or watch television lately without seeing an ad or a news report about the Jewish National Fund’s environmental work in Israel. This is an organization that enjoys patting itself on the back. But lately questions have been raised about the environmental direction it’s pursuing.
The JNF has traditionally been involved in development and starting new communities in addition to its responsibility for Israel’s forests. In recent years, however, the organization has been significantly expanding its involvement in various urban development plans, at an investment of tens of millions of shekels annually. Some see this as a reasonable expansion of its environmental activities, but there are professionals within the JNF who are uncomfortable with having such substantial resources diverted to local authority development plans, rather than to forests.
The list of projects that have been approved as assistance to local authorities is long and varied. About six months ago the JNF management approved more than 3 million shekels ($847,200) to upgrade the amphitheater in Mitzpe Ramon, and also agreed to help the Central Arava Regional Council erect an exhibition at the visitor’s center near the Hatzeva Junction that will showcase the JNF’s operations in the area, such as building reservoirs and clearing land. The organization agreed to support the development of open public spaces at the entrance to Pardesiya, and to spend 700,000 shekels to build a “heritage center” in Beit Shemesh. This center is to be “a central site for becoming acquainted with the environmental and Zionist characteristics of the city.” It also approved 600,000 shekels to upgrade a public park in the West Bank settlement of Kedumim and turn it into a major recreation area.
The JNF will also allocate 4 million shekels to build a major public space in Zichron Yaakov that will include a park, sports facilities and education complex; a few weeks ago the organization dedicated a sports field in Bnei Brak that it had renovated. At the opening ceremony, JNF chairman Efi Stenzler said, “While we are the largest environmental organization in Israel and one of the largest in the world, we are also a social welfare organization.” At another event marking the opening of an urban park, Stenzler explained that after the JNF had planted 240 million trees, it had made a strategic decision to bring more greenery into the cities.
“Our urban operations are an inseparable part of our activities as a leader in the field of environmental protection and sustainability,” the JNF told Haaretz. “Their purpose is to influence the quality of life in Israel and establish environmental assets that benefit the entire public, without charging admission. We are proud of the ‘Tree for Every Resident’ project, for which 7 million new trees were planted. This is all part of the continuum of activities to preserve open spaces as they are, to strengthen biodiversity, to fight air pollution, to strengthen the environment and make nature accessible, as part of a social response to the healthy leisure culture developing in Israel. This is all being done with the JNF’s own means and resources, with no state support.”
Over the past two years, the JNF has been operating a new “economic development team” that some in the organization fear is aimed at promoting commercial initiatives in or near forests. These concerns increased half a year ago, when during a discussion about operating a banquet hall in the Hulda Forest, one of the JNF’s legal advisers admitted that the organization was expressing conflicting positions on the issue. She asked to postpone a planning committee debate on the Hulda Forest site, claiming that new executives had joined the JNF and there was a need to formulate a position on holding events in forests.
“We did not set up an economic corporation but an organic unit within the organization,” the JNF said. “The team was set up to optimally regulate those activities requiring financial management, like setting up information and refreshment stands for hikers, educational field centers, ecotourism initiatives and green energy installations. Our policy is to make forests totally accessible. If any initiative is launched, it will benefit the principles of sustainability … [and be] based on existing arrangements with the Israel Lands Authority. With regard to banquet halls, our clear position is opposition to having them in forested areas and legal action against squatters who hold events in forested areas without a permit.”
What could shed more light on the JNF’s operations is an analysis of its annual budget, but that is a very complicated task. A query about how the general public could examine the JNF budget and how large it is got the following response: “The Jewish National Fund’s annual budget is 987 million shekels, of which not a single shekel comes from the state budget or Israeli taxpayers. The source of the entire budget is current donations and the yields from past contributions. The organization’s budget is updated every year and is publicized in a press statement.”
However, a look at the organization’s budget for 2010-2011, which was obtained in its entirety by Haaretz and not as a press release, shows that a significant portion of its income comes from transactions in land owned by the JNF that it transfers to the Israel Lands Authority.
An interesting environmental question is how the organization will, over the next few years, utilize the increased revenues it has been receiving from the heated real estate market. Stenzler has already declared that large sums will be invested in erecting new communities in the Negev, with the goal of bringing another 100,000 residents to the region.